- The Washington Times - Friday, March 29, 2002

JERUSALEM Hours after Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat said he was ready for an immediate cease-fire, Israeli tanks rolled into the West Bank town of Ramallah, about 20 of them taking positions nearly 200 yards from his headquarters, according to security sources.
The tanks positioned themselves for possible retaliatory action against a string of Palestinian suicide bombings.
Meanwhile, the Israeli Cabinet continued to meet into the early hours today. While the discussions continued, Israeli officials reacted with skepticism to Mr. Arafat's cease-fire offer.
Israel also decided to call up extra reserve troops for a partial mobilization as tensions rose sharply.
"The government approved that, following the recent wave of murderous terror attacks, there will be mobilization of a number of additional combat reserve units," an Israeli military source said.
Meanwhile, violence again erupted yesterday when a Palestinian gunman opened fire at a Jewish settlement near the West Bank town of Nablus, killing four persons before being shot dead by soldiers, the military said. The militant Islamic group Hamas claimed responsibility.
The attack came even as Israel continued to reel from a suicide attack Wednesday that killed 20 Israelis at the beginning of Passover. Speaking at a news conference in his Ramallah headquarters last night, Mr. Arafat said the Palestinians had informed U.S. envoy Gen. Anthony Zinni of "our readiness for an immediate implementation of the [U.S. truce] plan without any conditions."
"I assert our readiness to implement an immediate cease-fire, as we have informed General Zinni," Mr. Arafat told reporters at his compound.
The general arrived in the area in mid-March on a third attempt to broker a cease-fire. But the steady drumbeat of Israeli-Palestinian violence and preparations Israel appeared to be making for war all but drowned out Gen. Zinni's efforts and overshadowed a separate peace initiative toward Israel from Arab leaders.
Gen. Zinni has been shuttling between Jerusalem and Ramallah the past two weeks, trying to get Israelis and Palestinians to agree to a truce, then peace talks, spelled out last year in two American initiatives, one led by CIA Director George J. Tenet and the other by former Sen. George J. Mitchell, Maine Democrat.
Israel said that it has agreed to the Zinni cease-fire proposal and that Mr. Arafat, while paying lip service to a truce, continues to allow suicide bombers to attack the Jewish state.
"Arafat has said about 10 times that he accepts a cease-fire, and then he turns around and violates it, so he will be judged by his actions and not his words," said Raanan Gissin, an adviser to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
"The Cabinet is considering major decisions on the course of military action. We have to defend ourselves. The Palestinians are cranking out those suicide bombers at a rate of two a day," Mr. Gissin said.
He spoke as the Israeli Cabinet was in the midst of deliberations on how to respond to Wednesday's attack on a hotel dining room in the coastal city of Netanya.
A senior military official said the army asked the Cabinet for a green light to mobilize reservists for the operation. Mr. Sharon was expected to hold a late-night news conference to announce decisions reached by his government.
In Ramallah, where Israeli troops carried out a punishing three-day incursion earlier this month, Mr. Arafat ordered police and security officials to evacuate bases while residents, expecting a protracted Israeli occupation, emptied supermarket shelves of food.
"I have never seen so many people come in here," said Diala Khalaf, a 19-year-old cashier at the Max supermarket in downtown Ramallah.
Streetlights did not go on after dark, and people stayed indoors, unusual for a Thursday night.
"It's obvious that the Israelis are preparing for a major military campaign," said Hussein Sheikh, a top leader in Mr. Arafat's Fatah faction.
The anxiety ran to the Israeli side as well, where residents have been hit by a spree of bombings and shootings.
Hamas, which was behind yesterday's attack, also claimed responsibility for Wednesday's Passover bombing at the Park Hotel in Netanya.
About 250 people were sitting in the dining room of the hotel when a Palestinian bomber darted in and blew himself up in one of the worst suicide attacks in 18 months of fighting. Two-thirds of the guests sustained injuries.
One of them, Yitzhak Atsits, a 73-year-old widower from Jerusalem, crossed the lobby just after 7 p.m. and took a seat in the dining room. The table was garnished with traditional Passover provisions.
The main dish hadn't been served yet, Mr. Atsits said yesterday from his hospital bed. Suddenly, he heard an earsplitting blast from the center of the room, a few tables from his own. He remembers the lights going out and events unfolding in eerie sluggishness the force of the blast hitting him like a board, debris falling from the ceiling, guests wailing from their wounds.

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